Thursday, 13 December 2012

Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian

A friend of mine insisted that I read this book. I agreed to try, but remained skeptical of what I perceived to be a book for children. But not only is it an exceptionally good childrens' book, it can easily be appreciated by adults too. Its unassuming, simple and direct approach serves to make the novel emotionally very powerful. One feels that the somewhat basic nature of the emotions and language merely portrays the minds of children accurately, compared to, for example, Brontë's Jane Eyre, who (to me, at least) is a totally unconvincing 10 year old. William feels far more real. Here the emotions are far more primal, and William's transformation as an individual is magnificent to behold.
Perhaps the contrast of good and evil, and the romanticization of the countryside, are overly strong elements at times, but Magorian is able to contained these with limited amounts of accurate historical information, and the almost tangible realism that results serves to make the book believeable. Or rather, William's character is believeable. Zach, George, Mrs Hartfield, even Tom felt somewhat false to me, and my biggest regret for this novel is that Tom is not developed further. But it is a story that is focussed around William, and it is William's story of his life and emotional growth that I'm sure will draw me back to the book in years to come.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

I have to say that I was disappointed by this book. It is the fourth Discworld novel I've read (after Mort, Small Gods and Guards! Guards!), and it compares about as favourably as a dead meerkat. The vital spark and vim so essential to Pratchett's main characters was absent until the very end of the book, and throughout I had the sense that the story was building up to something grand and hilarious. Instead it was like listening to the Bolero without the crescendo. Slowly doddering along, not really going anywhere. The book didn't even have a lot to say about gender relations. Small Gods made me pause for thought a a fair few occasions, making me ponder such questions as 'What does that giant turtle thing carrying the world actually swim through?' But in Equal Rites it was just some silly women and some even sillier men bashing their narrow minds together, until finally joining together and the end (very quickly and with very little explanation). But what saddened me most was the almost total lack of Pratchett's signature footnotes. It just didn't feel like a proper, well-constructed member of the Discworld series. And thus, I pass judgement upon it, condemning it with a mere 3/10. 

Sunday, 13 May 2012

The Reluctant Mullah by Sagheer Afzal

A funny and, often, very moving book. Dadaji, the family patriarch of a Pakistani family, decides that it is time for Musa to get married to his cousin. But there is a get out clause. If Musa can find someone preferable in 30 days, he can escape the arranged marriage. The only problem is that Musa is a idealistic dreamer, looking for a Cinderella. 

It provided a fascinating insight into the Islamic world of marriage, gender and family relations, as well as being a good read. An awful lot has to be explained about Islam, and the need for such a lot of the book to be devoted to discussing it shows up your average Western readers incompetence more than the authors. The discussion of it does interfere with the flow of the story somewhat, but is just as interesting in a different way, for example, a discussion on the veil from a female-only point of view. 

A wonderful cast of characters, and a skilful blend of the light and frothy with darker material. Not bad for a first novel. 8/10. 

Friday, 11 May 2012

The Lorax by Dr Seuss

I amaze myself sometimes, I really do. I never thought I would be able to read a book in under five minutes. And yet with this, I have achieved the impossible! I turned to The Lorax because I don't remember any Dr Seuss, I wanted to refresh my memory. And it was as splendid as I thought it would be. A marvelous attack on the destruction of the environment, it has the almost chilling, and rather moving, lines:

'UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
It's not.'

Food for thought. 5/10.

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson

At 513 pages, this is a mammoth of a book, but it flows remarkably well. The detective work involved in Egyptology is communicated very well, with events, upheavals and changes deduced from seemingly insignificant pieces of evidence, such as the Narmer Palette, a grindstone for mixing pigments, the decoration for which symbolizes the unification of Egypt 5000 years ago.

The endurance that the Egyptian state had is incredible. The ideal of one pharaoh ruling by divine right throughout the Upper and Lower lands lasted for over 3000 years, and a strong Egypt bounced back time after time, returning after civil wars, invasions by the sea peoples, the Nubians, the Persians and the Greeks before falling to the Romans.

Wilkinson is especially good at revealing the dark side of Egypt, the side one rarely sees in documentaries or rough summaries of the period. For example, the pyramids. Often held up as being the willing work of a people who adored their pharaoh, it should be remembered that one had no choice. If you were conscripted, you had to work on the ridiculously grand designs of, what was in effect, tyranny. He compares the great pyramid of Giza to Nicolae Ceauşescu's Palace of the People, and sees the pyramids as the beginning of the obsession dictators have with immense buildings. Nevertheless, the figures behind the Great Pyramid still inspire awe: 481 feet high (the tallest building in the world until the Eiffel Tower); 2,300,000 blocks of stone; covering thirteen acres of land; 4,500 years old and a construction time of only 20 years (using 10,000 workers). The Arabs have a proverb: Man fears time, but time fears the Pyramids.

Yet, to look at, the pyramids are a distinct disappointment (speaking from personal experience). Elegance and taste are not words that could be applied. Wilkinson covers both sides of the coin in all cases of Egyptian history, the ups as well as the downs, and there were an awful lot of downs. For example, the life expectancy of your average Egyptian, working the land, was just 35, whereas a pharaoh could live to be 90 (Ramses the Great). So, while I remember about two of the hundreds of names mentioned, I still find that this book has been an enlightening read, giving an excellent base from which to launch into further reading. 7.8/10. 

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Persian Fire by Tom Holland

On the whole, quite a corker of a book. Dotted with humour, highly informative and excellently laid out.

The first third of the book is probably the best, giving the background information on Persia, Athens and Sparta. The Persian stuff is especially fascinating (probably because I didn't know any of it), tracing the rise of Persia with the overthrow of Astyages by Cyrus. The Persian Empire is every bit as interesting as the Greek world, but unfortunately the lack of evidence makes for a much shorter tale.

If you know the sources behind the Persian Wars (predominantly Herodotus) you can see how Holland has taken an approach of refreshing clarity, presenting always what he believes happened, rarely saying he is unsure. Which I take issue with. I think Holland is far too confidant in his version of events, and it is a shame he cuts out the sources, barely mentioning even the father of history himself. He does not explain the context of the evidence or the difficulties of interpretation, which is the books only really serious weakness.

What you do get, however, is very good. A perfect introduction to the period, and I could easily tell you why Holland is...POPULAR. 6.8/10.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

The Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke

His first full length novel, and although I have read none of his other works, I'm sure it is not his best. Otherwise his reputation is sorely underserved.

But while this doesn't hold up a candle to Asimov in literary style (as far as I'm concerned), the plot does start to pick up after 80 pages or so. Which is, admittedly, a rather long time to wait.

First published in 1951, the science is quite dated in many ways, but as the predictions of a Mars colony have not yet come to pass, it still looks expectantly towards the future (although I doubt there will be many Martians).

For terraforming, it doesn't compare well with Dune, but there are times when one gets bowled along with the enthusiasm of the characters. Strangely, however, main character - sci-fi writer Martin Gibson (yes, there is a lot of self-aware discussion, some of it interesting) - seems to show more interest in 'Squeak' the Martian than in his long lost son. But who knows how the mind works.

All in all, a perfectly readable novel, but certainly not great literature nor great sci-fi. Hopefully 2001: A Space Oddessy will impress more. 5.2/10.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Mort by Terry Pratchett

This is the fourth of the Discworld series, and the best (I am assured by various critics). It is Pratchett's most popular novel, and comes in at no. 65 on the BBC's '100 best-loved books'. I thought it a particular corker of a novel, just the kind of comedy I needed to lift me up after reading pages and pages of how impressive Robinson Crusoe's bloody wall is.

Some of the characters may be a bit weak, but the two main protagonists, Death and the boy Mort (his new assistant), are both splendid creations. Death is more complicated than one might think, with a penchant for cookery and kittens, but we never really get inside his head, the novel instead revolving around his apprentice, who has a rather wonderful thought process. There are some deeper issues present within the book, such as a midlife crisis (although undoubtedly that is the wrong word for an immortal anthropomorphic personification such as death) and love, but the comedy is what one should read this book for. 8.5/10.